After the storm: what's wrong with America?

CONDOLEEZZA Rice was quite emphatic.

On Friday President George W Bush linked September 11 and the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. He insisted that "Our people have the spirit, the resources and the determination to overcome any challenge." America remains, he said, a "strong and resilient nation".

Fighting words for sure, but will they be enough to re-energise his faltering presidency and restore belief in America's essential greatness? Right now the United States does not feel particularly strong or resilient, battered as it is by the elements and an often hostile world. After September 11, Bush argued that "For too long, our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it'. Now, America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.'" Fine words again, but that new creed has been watered down in the years since 9/11.

If the United States is at war, it is a war being prosecuted by only a minority of its citizens - many of them little better off in material terms than the poor unfortunates left stranded in New Orleans. Enlistment in the armed forces runs no higher today than it did prior to September 11 while calls for a greater sense of national community have been little more than an exercise in wishful thinking. Bush's national service bill, for example, died a quiet and silent death in Congress.

Instead of calling on all Americans to make sacrifices the President has given the impression that the war can be fought without changing any aspect of day to day life beyond implementing extra security measures at airports to make flying a more unpleasant experience.

"The unstated message [of Bush's tax cuts] was that we were not all in this together," argues Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, a best-selling critique of the fraying of American society, "and, whatever the economic merits or demerits of the policy, the civic implications of that policy were abominable."

Hurricane Katrina has reminded Americans of the fissures in American society, reopening wounds that many preferred to do their best to forget. But while issues of race and class have naturally been the subject of much discussion, the government's ham-fisted and inadequate response to Katrina has dented confidence in the idea of government itself and left Americans wondering whether their country, so long a beacon of optimism in a dark and tempestuous world, is on the right track or not.

Even some of President George W Bush's staunch supporters are worried. "He is a strong President but he has never really focused on the importance of good execution," says Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and former chief of staff for Vice-President Dan Quayle. "I think that is true in many parts of his presidency."

If that is true of the response to Katrina it is doubly so in Iraq where the war drags on with, to many eyes, little sign of real progress even as the American body count rises inexorably towards the 2,000 mark.

It is easy to forget that prior to September 11 the Bush presidency appeared purposeless and adrift. It was given meaning by Osama bin Laden. The ineffectual response to Katrina has, temporarily perhaps, eclipsed the War on Terror and shown the Bush administration at its worst: out of touch, sluggish to the point of indifference and ultimately incompetent. A government of cronies and toadies, such as the hapless head of FEMA, Michael Brown, promoted well beyond their station.

As former House Speaker and would-be 2008 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich put it this week, "We're not in a values fight now but over whether the system is working. The issue is delivery." By that measurement the Bush administration is failing. Katrina didn't just breach the levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans, it breached the idea of government itself.

Katrina has exposed the paucity of the President's domestic agenda - a weakness that has always been present but that hitherto had been outweighed by events overseas and the war on terror. According to Charlie Cook of the National Journal, "the bottom lines are, on a macro level does Katrina prolong what has been a horrible summer for President Bush, does it compound pre-existing problems and does it blow the roof off the Federal budget deficit? I think yes."

Marshall Wittmann, formerly communications director for John McCain and now a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, says that Bush has shown he is little more than a "man-child" president and that while "the country will survive his is striking that so many have protected him with the soft bigotry of low expectations".

"America yearns for adult leadership. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until January, 2009" says Wittman. But America's problems go beyond a loss of faith in the President. There is a sense that in some intangible fashion the country is simply too big, too confusing, too complicated to be governed effectively.

Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994 promising limited government but have succeeded in delivering big and ineffective government. Democrats for their part have still not absorbed the lessons of Bill Clinton's victories or come close to formulating a fresh alternative to the GOP. One hundred and twenty million Americans voted in last year's presidential election but the increased turnout came from the left and right of the political spectrum, not the disillusioned centre.

As the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks argues, across America "People are mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore". This being the case some observers wonder if, post Katrina, the country might be enthused by a burst of can-do populism and a return to "National Greatness". According to Brooks, a John McCain presidency looks more plausible now while shares in Rudy Giuliani have soared in the wake of the government's ineffective response to Katrina. Giuliani pursued a "broken windows" policing policy in New York: targeting minor offences to put the city's criminal fraternity on notice that they would no longer have the run of the streets. America as a whole may need something of that philosophy now.

On the face of it such concerns seem misplaced. The American economy remains reasonably healthy. Although the Treasury cut its projection for GDP growth by half a point, growth remains steady and unemployment fell to 4.9% this month - much less than half the rate in France or Germany. However the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Katrina could cost as many as 400,000 jobs. The labour market remains slack in much of the country. Furthermore, millions of Americans who still have jobs fear they may lose them. According to a recent Gallup poll, 63% believe that economic conditions are getting worse, not better.

A majority of economists might agree that the transfer of jobs overseas, to Mexico, India and China, is both overstated and beneficial for the American economy, but voters don't believe that. The seemingly inexorable, remorseless decline of manufacturing industry has created a sense of pessimism that has filtered into other sections of American life.

Furthermore, there is the sense that good jobs are being replaced by inferior positions in the service sector and that, as health insurance premiums and the cost of a university education continue to rise, the ordinary American is working harder than ever just to maintain, rather than improve, their standard of living. Fifty three per cent say their income is rising less quickly than their cost of living and only 40% are confident they will be able to retire with financial security. For the first time Americans fear their children's lives will be worse than their own generation's experience. This is a considerable psychological blow.

Meanwhile, Americans are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world dislikes the United States. That's when foreigners don't actually despise America. The United States can cope with envy, but it finds hatred hard to deal with. This too is a blow to American self-esteem.

Iraq seems to be a campaign with no end, or certainly no end articulated by a President who simply insists the US must "stay the course". And, as today's anniversary of 9/11 reminds us, Osama bin Laden remains at large, or at least unaccounted for, four years after the collapse of the World Trade Centre. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan. The President's foreign policy ratings have never been lower in the four years since 9/11. January's elections in Iraq seem a long time ago.

Katrina will have an impact on American foreign policy too, according to Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The attractiveness of the American model, and the ability of the United States to be an effective advocate for more democratic, capitalist societies, which had already been weakened by the disarray in Iraq, is now weaker still as a result of the disarray at home." Jimmy Carter famously once reflected upon the "malaise" afflicting America in the 1970s. It was a pivotal moment in his presidency, making him seem pessimistic and gloomy in an un-American fashion. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, blithely promised that it could be "Morning in America" again and his sunny belief in America's resilience and character was central to his political success. George W Bush may claim Reagan's mantle, but in certain respects his America has more in common with Carter's than with the Gipper's years in office.

Other observers draw an even less flattering comparison. Christopher Shays, an independently-minded Republican congressman from Connecticut, accuses the Bush administration of having "a real sense of arrogance. Loyalty and never admitting a mistake matters more than the truth". Worse, Shays adds, "It has a Nixon feel to me." Indeed, Bush's approval ratings are now approaching Nixonian levels.

Is it so surprising then that the two best-selling books should be the new Harry Potter and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - a children's escapist fantasy and an unconvincing conspiracy theory respectively? Taken together they represent two strands of America's mood four years after 9/11: a need to get away from the grim reality of the contemporary world and an uneasy feeling that forces beyond the control of ordinary people are somehow pulling the strings.

According to Lawrence Kaplan, writing in the New Republic, "Bush still acts as though national life can somehow be compartmentalised, with a nation of couch potatoes footing the bill for ambitious foreign and military policies. Thus has the White House invited Americans to indulge in the conceit that distant wars obviate the need for broad sacrifice or the mobilisation of national power. Unfortunately, the wider scope of action permitted by waging war on the cheap is illusory".

Kaplan argues that "not only has everything not changed since September 11; nothing has. According to a mountain of attitudinal and behavioural data collected in the past four years, the post-September 11 mood that former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge dubbed 'the new normalcy' resembles nothing so much as the old normalcy". Four years on from the defining moment of George W Bush's presidency, the challenges facing the United States seem as great as ever. But whereas Bush was seen, after a faltering first day, to quickly gain command of the situation then, rallying the nation in its stunned and grieving hour of need, now he seems adrift and at the mercy of events at home and abroad.

The President has surprised his critics before and made a virtue out of being "misunderestimated" and he may do so again. But with mid-term elections due next year he is fast running out of time to avoid the second term disappointments that have afflicted so many of his predecessors in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, his people are in creasingly asking themselves: "What's wrong with America?"

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